Mohsin Hamid’s elegant and provocative fourth novel Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) is truly a text for our times. Told with the author’s usual economy and balancing a precise realism with elements of the fantastic, it is the story of a young couple, Nadia and Saeed, whose love story begins just as their unnamed country descends into civil war. As their home city becomes increasingly dangerous, Nadia and Saeed look for an escape, and when characters in the novel need to flee their homes, there are mysterious doors that—if they can be located— provide direct access to other countries, free of border crossings. Nadia and Saeed decide to take that route.
The door the couple finds takes them to London—or at least, to a version of London: the city that has been reshaped by unfettered migration. A new population drawn from all across the world is making its home in the empty apartment blocks of Kensington and Chelsea that are owned by overseas investors; and with the hostile authorities cutting off the electricity supply to these re-occupied areas, London divides into a strange city, part in darkness and part in light.
Exit West may sound unsettling, yet it is not intended to be a vision of apocalypse. The new London is disturbed but not in utter disorder and the turmoil throws up fresh beginnings for both Nadia and Saeed, even as their own relationship changes.
Speaking on the phone from the US, Hamid—who divides his time between Pakistan, the US and the UK— says he had finished the novel before Brexit seemed a real possibility and when the election of Donald Trump seemed incredible. But in writing it, he was responding to the same discomforting currents that were leading towards both those developments, he believes.
“When we think about the future at this particular moment in human history, there is this unrelenting narrative of deterioration and dread. Machines are coming to take our jobs, the environment is facing catastrophe, uncontrolled migration is reaching the shores of wealthy countries,” he explains. “And whether you are in Pakistan, where I mostly live, or in London, where I spend time, or even here [in the US], where I am speaking to you [from], I hear this sort of vision of bad things that are going to happen stated by so many people.
“And I was thinking about this in light of what that does to politics. When people think that the future is bleak, they are much more sympathetic to nostalgic and sometimes very regressive appeals—racist or chauvinist or whatever. I thought, why aren’t there more positive visions of the future being articulated? For most of human history, for most people, things have tended to get better. There are far fewer people starving or dying in conflict today than there were 50 or 100 years ago. And life in Britain, while not perfect, is probably much better for most people than it was 100 years ago—and the same is true in Pakistan and America. I thought, who is articulating for us a future that involves change but something we can adapt to?”
Hamid wanted to write a novel that explored a future which, while frightening, posited hope, “as a creative act but also as a political act”; his desire came “from a belief that fictional prophecies can affect the world for the better. I’m not trying to say a world of migration is coming and it is going to be fantastic but instead to say that even if it does come, people can adapt. It is important that we must not simply be nostalgic in the way we approach the future because, if so, we are going to become depressed as a society. It’s out of that depression that some of the worst barbarisms are born, things like Isis, or the really right-wing parties of Europe, so it’s important to fight it.”
Hamid’s nomadic experience informs his sensibilities. His early childhood was split between Pakistan and California, his teens were spent in Lahore, his twenties back in the US, and then his thirties in London. Now in his mid-40s, he is primarily based back in Pakistan.
“The consequence of that is good and bad,” he muses. “It is impossible for me to think of myself any more as a person of just one place; the bad [aspect of that] is that I feel slightly alien everywhere. I don’t agree with much I see around me in Pakistan, but I don’t agree with much around me in America and the UK either.” When he was younger, that was “a huge problem—you don’t want to be different”, but now he thinks this sense of foreignness is a window into how everybody feels.
“Most people, deep down, have some sense of not belonging, whether that be to the dominant racial, cultural, religious, sexual or political paradigm around them. In a bizarre way, after a majority of a lifetime of being alarmed by my sense of difference, now it’s become almost reassuring. On a train, sat next to somebody from pretty much anywhere, I feel quite comfortable conversing with them and trying to connect with them. It’s something I value.”
A human heart
That broader sense of migration as part of the human condition is one reflected in the love story of Exit West, the structure of which forms a parabola around the growing and then waning connection of its central couple. “I wanted to explore a love story that is itself like a migration, from the place of that initial spark and chemistry and attraction, to the maturation of that, the closeness of connection, and then to something else at the other end,” Hamid says.
“I wanted to explore a male/female passion that resolves itself not in profound bitterness or anger, or fantastical perfection that lasts forever, but something else. Most of us who have loved anybody in a moment of our lives have experienced that quite often love becomes something bittersweet, poignant and beautiful in its own way, but lost to us. The love for our parents, who very often die before we do, becomes something like that. The love for our children, who will hopefully live beyond us, becomes something like that. It was very important for me to write about something that evolves.
“And I think in a sense it fits with the narrative of migration. Just as we move through space in life, we move through emotional space in relationships. There is something fundamentally human about migration because the journey through time is what it is to have a human life. You can’t stay in the moment, you can never settle.”